Slave Shoes: The REAL behind Adidas’ Big Oops
Black America may be ready to pull the plug on me after saying this, but it must be said: The JS Roundhouse Mid – aka “The Shackle Shoe” – is NOT an allusion to slavery. It only takes someone who was GROWN in the 80’s to think otherwise. A younger generation (those of us reaching 30 now) who grew up on Saturday morning cartoons knows that the latestcancelled Adidas design is a throwback – not to 1863 but 1986 – when “My Pet Monster” first hit the airwaves. It was a wildly successful show, and like G.I. Joe, My Little
Pony, and Pound Puppies, My Pet Monster quickly gained a cult following. The main character was a blue bear that wore orange chains, and at certain points in the show it would break the chains as a symbol of strength. So not only is the shoe not profiting off the global slave trade (which continues), shoe designer Jeremy Scott (an 80’s geek himself)’s allusion to MPMactually promotes the opposite: the show was empowering children around ideas of FREEDOM, and the shoe – the shackle shoe – was a nostalgic laud of an obscure and now-forgotten moment in popular culture.
A lot of people don’t know this history because Adidas doesn’t own any licensing on “My Pet Monster”, so when they made the statement they couldn’t say EXACTLY what they were pointing towards, but it’s this. Now you know. Tell someone else and maybe we can cure ignorance one…(wait for it)…sole at a time. Too easy.
The lessons I have learned through watching and subtly participating in the process of having Adidas’ shoe taken down are many. First, the gap between the Baby Boomer and Hip Hop Generations is severe. We Hip-Hoppers (and shoe culture) love ironic fashion that makes subtle references to obscure things that only 15 people (MAX) understand. What my parents call “stylish” we now call “fresh,” meaning “You Ain’t Up On This.” So a would-have-been $350 pair of shoes that sports chains is totally worth it if even ONE person comes up to you and says, “Whoa! My Pet Monster!”
I know you don’t get it; it’s not for getting. Just take this lesson.
The fact is, Adidas forgot about the Parents of the Hip Hop Generation – those who walked around back or had to hold their tongue in the presence of a white person, lest trouble come; those for whom the names Emmitt Till and Medgar Evars returns painful memories; those whose parents were a part of Reconstruction and had grandparents who migrated from the Deep South. Adidas wasn’t saying anything about slavery, but they forgot that “perception is reality.” The decision to release the shoe was a move of deep insensitivity and ignorance to the still painful and still broken race relations in this country. And you know what made Rev. Jesse Jackson so mad? He knows what we know: black boys are the main purveyors of sneaker culture.
And it’s bigger than slavery. It’s about the shackles young men wear into courtrooms every day. Those look like these. And the ways other fashion statements and corporate branding strategies make degradation popular. It’s hard for our generation to see it because we’re in it.
What exactly are you trying to say by giving a black boy a pair of shoes with chains on them? Forget the freedom not to buy (the Conservative retort): for all this time we’ve been having a conversation about the clandestine process called Prison Industrial Complex, and now you are going to physically chain black boys’ ankles? I too would be upside down. Adidas should have known better.
Hip Hoppers: I know YOU don’t get that. It’s not for getting. Thankfully, we didn’t live it.
The biggest generational difference this kerfuffle highlights is that the shackle has lost its significance with young people, while it remains vivid in the hearts of our parents. We need a conversation about images and the power of symbols. Jeremy Scott is outrageous – he designs for Lady Gaga, Kanye West, and Nikki Minaj – but he wouldn’t have designed a swastika on a shoe. Because Jewish groups have made it a point to keep the symbolism vivid: Black America has not. That is why I am GLAD Rev. Jackson spoke up so urgently. Sure, he doesn’t know about My Pet Monster, but he knows about shackles. Our children need to remember. We have lost the space for moral outrage. We must continue to remain indignant at injustice and degredation.
And there remains a conversation about Adidas’ production processes (I’m talking about sweat shops now). Is it okay that children are in chains behind the scenes IF they do not emerge on the final product? We ought to push sneaker culture to be more demanding for transparency – you are paying enough to demand fair labor wages and dignity for your brothers and sisters in Asia.
And one more word beyond shoes: If Adidas thought they could get away with it, what does that say about what they think about you? Black people will gladly wear shackles again, because it’s FRESH…They won’t make a big fuss (for over a year they were right). The fact they thought they could get away with it says more than we can handle right now.
Have we become so medicated on name brands that we are now numb to cultural significance? Has our Internet identity taken over our true selves? How much does real oppression matter if you can log onto Facebook and find safe space again?
Why did the gatekeepers of Hip Hop culture not demand this be taken down? Why did it take Jesse to make us look at ourselves? Why were some of us so angry that it was Jesse? Can we have important conversations and offer critique without sounding like Riley from The Boondocks?
Unfortunately life does raise more questions than answers. But one thing the Slave Shoe taught me is our generations don’t talk enough. We are all missing the meaning of “shackles” one way or another. Good riddance to the shoe, but we still ain’t free…
Julian DeShazier serves as the Senior Minister at University Church Chicago. He is a Chicago native, and a graduate of Morehouse College and the University of Chicago Divinity School.